Q + A on Abs – what it takes worth it?

Posted: November 12, 2010 at 12:00 pm

For today’s post, I want to focus on a question I received for the November Ask Me Anything Series:

Can you talk about what it really takes to have abs? For example, what did it take to have the flat stomach you had during your competition prep? Is it something that others could aim for in terms of their physique goals or do you think it's unrealistic?

I have shared a post on this before, but it was awhile ago before many of my current readers were around. Instead of just linking to an old post, I decided this was a topic worth discussing again so I updated that old post to more specifically fit the question above. I hope you all enjoy reading it…and if you were around for the previous post, my apologies. As well as my gratitude for being such a loyal, long-time reader! 😀


I will start off by differentiating two “styles” of abs. On the one hand, some view abs as the picture on the left. Very defined, no pooches visible, lean with obvious musculature, the six-pack (or even four-pack) look. Others define having abs as simply a flat stomach with some definition, similar to the photo on the right.


[Source 1, Source 2]

The difference between the two matters greatly. So, for the portion of the question asking if the pursuit of abs is a reasonable physique goal, my personal opinion is NO for maintaining and achieving the more “ripped” abs look. Why? Well, there are many factors to keep in mind.

1. It is very difficult to maintain. A lot of things have to happen in order to achieve abs like the ones above. It is highly probable that years of tough workouts and a very “clean” diet would be involved. You would likely be eating very controlled day in and day out with extremely limited or no treats for a long, long time. And have to couple it with a fair amount of time spent in consistent workouts as well. For some, a lifestyle like that works. But for many, we have other facets of our lives and have certain foods we enjoy and don’t want to give up for life. I had abs for awhile last year during my competition prep.


Even at 14% body fat, they didn’t look like what you see on a fitness model. During prep, I was very meticulous with my food – counting, measuring, tracking, and eating much less than what my body needed. I spent hours (yes, plural) working out each day with high intensity. I knew the way I was living during prep wasn’t something I could (or would even want) to maintain.Some things aren’t worth it and I realized it doesn’t make me any less worthy to not have that stomach.

2. Unhealthy low body fat levels. In order for abs to be visible on a woman she generally would have to reach a body fat level of around 12%. Athletes have an average body fat percentage of 15-20% and the average woman has a percentage of 22-28%, which is NOT bad. In fact, low levels, such as the approximate 12% for six-pack abs, can be detrimental to your health. Issues ranging from fatigue to menstrual issues to low bone density are common when living at such a low body fat level. Personally, I would rather be healthy on the inside with energy, the option to bear children, and the ability to walk when I’m 50.

3. Genetics. You could work your butt off in the gym, diet like crazy, achieve the required level of leanness and STILL not have abs like you see in fitness magazines. Some women have more predominant abdominal muscles that will stick out and show up more readily when they lean out. Others will end up with a flatter stomach and may not have the clear sections of the abdominal wall show through.

4. Even models don’t keep their abs year round. You have to be wary that what you see in magazines could be “refinished” to help the look along. In my opinion, the image below looks iffy and touched up. Also, when women work towards a photo shoot or fitness competition they have a specific date to work towards. They lean down for the event and then go back to more real life living. That doesn’t mean they don’t look amazing other times of the year, but it is likely their midsections aren’t quite as defined 24/7/365 like you think.


And while I do believe that it is reasonable to work for and maintain abs that more resemble a flat but not overly defined stomach, I would highly suggest focusing less on aesthetic goals. I believe it is more beneficial and rewarding to simply have a goal to care for ourselves with proper nutrition and challenge ourselves accordingly with fitness related goals. I think working towards those types of goals, without a specific image of our “perfect” body in mind, will bring us right to where our bodies feel best. And where we should feel best, too.

  • What are your thoughts on abs?
  • Have you ever worked hard to achieve a goal only to realize it wasn’t very maintainable and didn’t make you as happy as you expected?

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74 Comments to “Q + A on Abs – what it takes worth it?”
  1. Great discussion! I believe I am one of those people that could never have the ‘ripped ab’ look… and I am a-ok with that. I think I actually prefer the look on the right (and your abs!!) better anyways 🙂

    I have what I call a 3 pack… pretty good definition in the upper abs, and so-so in the lower 🙂

  2. i definitely think that it’s good to have strong core and abdominal muscles, but i don’t think it’s worth it to do all the hard work. dedicating your life to a 6-pack isn’t very reasonable, and there are so many good foods to eat 🙂

  3. I think those super ripped abs that some of aspire to achieve are a bit far-fetched in real life. It’s one reason I have stopped buying Oxygen and Hers M&F. It’s not reality for me as I’m not competing. But, it doesn’t mean you can’t come fairly close. I love my abs, and they are visible. But I think they are realistic. I think so much of it goes back to distorted views of reality and what we see on magazine covers vs how people really live. I do work hard to have abs. I am consistent with cardio, with weight training, and mostly clean eating. But I am realistic: I probably won’t give up wine or pizza. 😉

  4. GREAT POST!! I honestly don’t think it is worth it….I don’t wanna have to be that strict with anything! Your abs did look amazing:)
    My husband likes my stomach and that is all that matters as long as I feel confident and healthy I don’t really mind having a little extra something.
    Plus I don’t think it is in my DNA and I don’t want my body fat that low! Seriously, I love reading your blog…it always gets me thinking!

  5. Thanks so much for this post, Tina! As I’m one week out from my competition, I’ve actually been thinking about this A LOT! I’m lovin’ that I’m getting definition in my stomach, but go back and forth thinking about how I’d probably have to continue to eat this way and work out this intense all the time just to “keep them”. I think that is going to be very difficult. I definitely want to stay within 5lbs of my weight at competition since I’m planning on competing in fitness next Spring, but it will still mean I’ll have to keep up my workouts and eat pretty much the same, maybe with a treat here and there. I guess it will just take experimenting to see what I can get away with and what I can’t in terms of adding certain foods back in. We shall see!!!

    • Tina says:

      Take your time adding things back in and slowly upping cals again. I think that helps a lot with having less of a rebound. Then, I bet you could add more in than you expect over time.

  6. Thanks for this! I didn’t realize that the defined abs look wasn’t sustainable. I always assumed that once you had em’ you didn’t have to work as hard to maintain. Not going for that look though, but it’s still reassuring to hear that even people that have ripped abs struggle to keep them.

  7. Mellissa says:

    I have a mostly flat stomach that is a lot of genetics and the other half of diet and exercise. But I would never be able to achieve that ribbed ab look, my body just does not build muscle like that.

  8. Great post! I have a strong core from synchronized swimming, but I’m fine with it just being strong- I don’t need it to be defined and I couldn’t keep up with that! I like my treats and I wouldn’t want to go crazy. I prefer the flat abs look, anyway- I think it looks more natural and attractive:)

    • Tina says:

      Much better to have a strong core you can USE instead of one that looks great, but not having much energy from all the training it takes. 😉

  9. I do also agree that genetics really are key, as well as how your body was trained growing up. I am very lucky that my abs become visibly defined at a much higher body fat than many people. (around 17%) I believe that 1) I was genetically blessed, and 2) It comes from the fact that I was a competitive swimmer that did daily ab work-outs from the age of 5 on. And, yes, it certainly was on minimal calories, many hour work-outs (as a college athlete), and probably not so healthy the last time I saw mine.

    However, THANK YOU for reminding me that you got back to looking incredible after M. I am struggling with that idea right now!

  10. Becca says:

    My thoughts on abs…. well, someday I’ll have them! But I know genetically speaking for me it’s not an easy goal, but competing may or may not bring them out. 🙂 We shall see!

  11. I love everything that you brought to this discussion.

    Ultimately many of us struggle to have a type of ab definition that doesn’t quite jive with how our body was created. 🙂 I know I used to!

    But what has happened with me over time is with consistent exercise, coupled with intuitive eating (no binge eating) and listening to my body, my stomach has flattened a great deal! As good as I would like it considering that I still eat oreos and cheesecake when I want to!

    A consistent, healthy lifestyle will change your body! We just have to remember that it takes time!

    • Tina says:

      Thanks for sharing this! Such a great example that it is possible to have a flat stomach by treating our bodies well, but that it doesn’t have to be “ripped”. Treating our bodies well will bring our bodies to a great place for our own unique shapes.

  12. Angela says:

    Great post Tina! Personally, I don’t really care for the super ripped (left photo) look, because it doesn’t seem very feminine. Ideally, something in between the 2 would be nice. However, like you I think it’s important (and often more fun) to focus on non-aesthetic goals because they tend to be more meaningful. The grandchild that I have fun bouncing around on my non-arthritic 70-year old knee isn’t going to care that I had ripped legs when I was younger!

  13. chris says:

    I work the abs hard but am more concerned with my core as that is really what effects my running

    • Tina says:

      This is great. It’s important to train our abs and strengthen them because they are a vital part to our fitness. Having a goal to have a strong core for running, like you mentioned, is much more useful than simply having a goal to feel good about a flat stomach.

  14. I’ve never been interested in having a 6 pack – mainly because Ive never really liked ab work. 🙂 I would be ecstatic to have abs like the second picture though. Thats my personal goal.

  15. This is a great topic! Since I am missing multiple packs in the abs, I focus on my back and I think I feel better with a stronger back than I ever did with abs! I think core health is a more important goal. I have a fear of having a bad back since so many older people have this problem and since I don’t have the balance of ab muscles to back muscles, I try to make sure the my core region is as strong as possible.

  16. I’ve had those abs for a while and it was not worth maintaingn for me. I actually found it easier to get the abs (bc I was still excited by progress) than it was to maintain. It wasn’t fun and it led me down some very scary roads.

    Now, my stomach looks like the girl on the right and I think that’s pretty dang hot and I don’t strive for the left stomach anymore!

  17. Bree says:

    Thanks for the great post! I wish more people understood what it takes to get competition ready. Not that I have done it, but just reading and following others who have. I wish more women and younger girls realized that the pictures we see in magazines are a moment in time and that fitness models don’t always walk around with their 8 packs 🙂

    Fortunately, I have had a pretty flat stomach most of my life. Genetics are to thank. I hate doing ab/core work though so it works out great for me! I tend to lose fat from my upper body and stomach before my lower body, so I don’t foresee myself being a fitness competitor anytime soon. But I never say never to anything anymore…

  18. Astrid says:

    I take pride in the fact that my core is strong and getting stronger. I can hold planks, headstands, and have great posture. I may not have the tummy of a model, but it is definitely a very functional core. And I will take function over vanity any day.
    It is so easy to think that achieving some asthetic ideal will solve your problems and make you happy. But if it is something that takes away from the joy of living, I personally do not think it is worth it. Being recovered from an ed, my goals include eating intuitively not in a regimented manner.
    Thank you for this post!

    • Tina says:

      You summed it up so perfectly. “I will take function over vanity any day”. They need stickers for mirrors that say that!

  19. Again, an awesome post Tina. It must have took a lot of work for your abs to look like that.. which by the way there is no denying that you looked like you were in great shape, but like you said – wasn’t maintainable long term. You set a goal, you achieved it ..done and done!

    For me, to get a flat(ter) stomach it happens in the kitchen and in the gym.

    I want to mention too how surprised I have been that my stomach has bounced back so quickly after pregnancy. Maybe I will post a pic sometime, but I think it’s important for people to know that if they want to get into good shape after pregnancy it’s a good idea to be in decent shape before pregnancy. At least, it helped me anyway.

    • Tina says:

      Yes, yes, yes. Very possible to get back in shape after a baby, and being in shape before helps a great deal. I actually struggle with deciding how I want to share personal progress with getting in shape after the baby. I have lots of post ideas for all of that.

  20. I can honestly say that I’ve never had anything close to flat or defined abs…and that’s okay with me 🙂

  21. Great post! Im with you on the 6pack abs not being worth it. Ive never had abs like that because its always caused major mental health issues and eating issues.. Life is to short to restrict yourself that much. I have abs like the second picture and im perfectly happy with that! Sometimes they are better, sometimes less! but its maintainable because i dont count food.. I just eat what i want, and workout!

  22. A few years ago I was doing 20 minutes of serious ab work probably 5 days a week and my stomach still didn’t look “cut”. It was flat and toned, but nothing like what you’d see in a magazine. My body type just doesn’t jive with rock-solid abs- I’m a total apple shape!! And you know what? I’ve completely accepted that. Sure, I still do some crunches to keep my tummy firmer, but I’d rather focus on and show off the parts of my body that look awesome without working out obsessively. If you’ve got it, flaunt it- whether it be abs or anything else!!

  23. Jess says:

    GREAT post, Tina. I am totally with you – the “ripped” look is just not realistic for “real” or “balanced” living. I’m sorry but I cannot fathom living on such a restrictive lifestyle just to have abs like that. One – it seems so superficial and two – it would be such a major impact on every other portion of your life. For me, I know I’d be utterly miserable. Great, my abs are ripped, but at the detriment of EVERY other part of my life. Is that worth it?? I just wrote about how I need to focus on my core strength – note I didn’t say my “abs” but my core strength. Because to me, I am working my core so it makes me stronger overall – sure, I’d love a slightly flatter stomach, but my bigger goal is a strong core that will lift me along during my next race, or my next kickboxing class. THAT is way more valuable and important than the look of my abs alone. There, I’m off my soap box 😉

  24. This is a great post! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, you are totally right on how hard it is to achieve and maintain rock solid abs. I have a hard time for years getting abs, and they still never looked anywhere near yours did for the competition….but that is my genetics, and the fact that I was never competing in a fitness competition and measuring, working out for hours, etc. I think it is much more important to have STRONG abs and back muscles, which do not always coincide with “6 pack abs,” as you know.

    Happy Friday!!!

  25. Great post! You have such great experience and insight, and I think it’s so generous of you to share with us. I can’t help but smile at the thought, though, that your abs are currently being overwhelmed with the beauty of being a woman, aka hosting a baby. So cute 🙂

  26. I feel like my abs are always a work in progress. Because you’re right- maintaining anything is difficult!

    I honestly love where I’m at physically right now- so if that means I won’t ever have the 6-pack, so be it. I like toffee more… 😉

  27. Maybe it’s just me but I would MUCH rather have the abs in the second picture than the first.

  28. Meg says:

    This is an interesting (and embarassingly relieving post). I’m one of those people who, genetically, get ab definition pretty easily. To know that it’s “ok” that mine look like the ones on the right makes me think I’m on the right track!

  29. Abs are difficult to maintain – I did have a really flat, toned stomach at one point (read… at one point) but I wans’t properly fueling my body!

  30. Marg says:

    Ughhh the dreaded abs, my body holds all of my weight in my stomach and chest. It’s really noticeable on me because my pooch really sticks out, so my only goal is to get a flatter stomach.

  31. Brooke says:

    abs are the first place i actually start to see results when i buckle down on nutrition and exercise. i’m gifted genetically like that. having said that i’ve never looked like the woman on the left and i’m fairly certain my husband would freak out if i did.

  32. Wow, I can’t believe that picture of you! I know you were doing a figure competition, I’m not trying to criticize you, but in your more recent pictures you look much healthier. I don’t strive for a six-pack, or even a completely flat stomach, just overall fitness and not too much “flab” I guess 🙂

    • Tina says:

      I do not take offense to that at ALL. I wasn’t at a healthy place there for a lifestyle at all in that photo. I completely agree. It was about 5 days before my competition so I was VERY depleted.

  33. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tina Reale, Tina Reale. Tina Reale said: Q + A on Abs – what it takes worth it?: For today’s post, I want to focus on a question I received for the Novem… http://bit.ly/9E5v0B […]

  34. Camille says:

    Much as I would love to have perfectly flat abs all the time, I have recently realized that when it comes down to it, they aren’t worth the work for me. I want to be able to eat dessert and skip days at the gym.
    I am okay with being slightly less than “perfect” in my abs, because they are me, they are easy for me to maintain and I look perfect just the way I am!

  35. Lisa says:

    I agree complteely with this post. I have pretty defined abs and I never do any crunches. Even now at my highest weight (around 135) I have them. Its just genetic in my family. A lot people are always like OMG, I am so jealous, but honestly I dont want to have ripped abs. I think for a woman it doesn’t look right. I would much rather look long and lean!

  36. Mandy says:

    I have never in my life had super defined abs, even at my lowest weight. I know though, that I am strong and healthy and that is what matters to me. If I ever did a competition, I’m sure I’d get more definition but I also know I could never maintain that lifestyle for good. I enjoy food, I enjoy wine, and I’m okay with just being healthy, and being me 🙂

  37. Theres more to life than having a totally ripped stomach 🙂 and when you have one, going through the measures to get it are miserable, and the results only last shortly ( in terms of totally ripped abs). Having a flat stomach that you achieve in a healthy way is more realistic to achieve and maintain. I think women don’t realize that ripped abs on those particular models are NOT what they maintain every day (just exactly how you’ve stated). Low body fat is what makes them pop, which in the long run we all know why that is unhealthy to maintain. I have abs, but they appear when I tighten up my diet and exercise, so basically they make a grand appearance only once in a while, and I’m totally fine with that. I think its really important that women are aware that their body weight fluctuates every day because of water retention, etc, and some things we can not change. You can spend hours working out and restrict your diet and you will never achieve what some other women have just because God simply did not make you that way.. so embrace your health and unique qualities!

  38. Melie says:

    I kind of quit on the idea of a six-pack after a good friend of mine and personal trainer told me what I would have to give up in order to get it! Let alone maintain it…

    Now, if we are talking about those biceps of yours in the photo, I would do almost anything in order to get them! 🙂

    • Tina says:

      I had to giggle at the biceps comment. That came with a lot of heavier lifting. I love it! Those I did have (and probably better looking too) even before comp training. Defined arms are very realistic for me and I can’t wait to get those muscles back. 😀

  39. Heather says:

    I have always had a hard time with abs. I am not patient enough to do what i need to work on them. its something I have been trying to remedy though! I have no desire to have a 6 pack but a little definition and flatness is nice!

  40. Alina says:

    I don’t think abs version 1 are worth the sacrifice! However, I maintain version 2 or something close to it with reasonable work. I think a strong core – back and abs – are good for more than aesthetic reasons.

    • Tina says:

      Completely agreed! The second set are very reasonable for many…and the focus should always be on a strong core. 🙂

  41. I have, like, a four-pack without any work or effort whatsoever, so I think it is based largely on genetics. That said, I have huge hips, also due to genetics. Yeah, I was smaller when I was Shredding and eating less, but I am too lazy to devote myself to living like that ALL of the time. Plus, I probably wasn’t eating enough then. I think, whatever your body type, it is way more worthwhile to focus on being a strong, healthy woman than to focus on becoming a low-percent body fat vision of perfection.

  42. Lindsay says:

    I actually dont follow a very strict diet and I work out a couple of times a week and I have very defined abs. I think that the reason I have defined abs is because genetically I do not carry weight in my middle, but rather around my hips!! 🙂

  43. Lee says:

    While I would like to look like the picture on the right, I simply don’t and don’t think I ever will. My stomach is not flat and I have some excess skin (which is odd since i didn’t lose that much weight). But that’s okay. That’s what shirts are for!

  44. I think your thoughts are SPOT on!! Genetics does play a HUGE part in abs. Like you said, one could lean down to 12% bodyfat but still see their abs as popping out, just the way thier bodies were built. Everuthing we see in oyxgen magazines and such, those models were usually photograped just before or after a show, so this is not how they look year round. It is definately achievable but realistically not something that should be kept up year round.

    Another thing to mention is how important diet is to getting that flat stomach! some say abs are made in the kitchen and for me, I have to say I truly do believe this. treat yoru abs like any other body part, I have been training my abs MUCH less than I used to and with some simple changes in my diet I notice a HUGE difference. It is not the 1000 crunches that will get you that six pack thats for sure!

  45. LG says:

    Thanks for this interesting post! I’m a Christian too and have been enjoying your blog over the past few weeks since I found it! Go girl. :0)

  46. Eliza says:

    Hey Tina, I wondered if you had a source for the bit about body fat percentages (number 2)? I’m really interested in the way women construct notions of “health” and an article or source that describes what you’ve articulated here would be really interesting for me to read

    • Tina says:

      Let me search for it again. I used those stats from the last post I did on this, but know I found an article from like a medical site or something when I wrote that original post. I hate that I didn’t include the source back then for easy referral.

  47. Nicola says:

    I want something in between the two. I don’t have anything close to a flat stomach at the moment, so anything close to that would be good! But I guess I would like to see IF I could achieve the ripped stomach some day.

  48. Courtney F says:

    Not only is it super hard to keep up those ripped abs my husband is not so great of a fan of the chiseled look. We are both ok with some definition though.

  49. Thank you SO much to posting this. I had no idea that most of those women with “ripped” abs don’t keep it year-round. I’m not sure I could give up the chocolate long enough for it… 😉

  50. Jenn (GH) says:

    I can get a “ripped” looking stomach fairly easily b/c of GENETICS. If I lean out I can’t help it my abs will show through. I just don’t carry much body fat from the waist up. I’ve been on the other end and felt criticized b/c my stomach looks “manly” or “gross” to some. I think it’s sad that women continually pick apart other women b/c they don’t look the way they do. I think all bellies are beautiful 6-pack or not.

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